This week: Grand strategy, painting history & more.
On Grand Strategy, by John Lewis Gaddis (Penguin Press): The operative word of John Gaddis’s new book On Grand Strategy is “irony.” History is like that. You’re Xerxes, King of Kings, and you have your factota set up your throne upon rising ground to view the battle about to unfold. But the bay below is Salamis and the captain of the opposing force is Themistocles, so what ought to have been was not, and the upstart Greeks crushed the Persian navy, thus, ironically, altering the course of history. Or ask Julius Caesar about irony: here he was, perhaps the greatest military general ever, but he is felled by treacherous “friends” in Pompey’s theater: who could have predicted that? Or who could have predicted that an unknown teenager called Octavius would earn his uncle’s respect and be made heir to two-thirds of his fortune and, posthumously, beneficiary of the politically advantageous formality of adoption as the son of Julius Caesar? The rest, as they say, is history. This eminently readable book by a master historian is a sort of intellectual biopsy of his famous team-taught course at Yale on the subject announced in this book’s title, “Grand Strategy.” Notwithstanding all the horrors emanating from the groves of academia, not least from those groves located in New Haven, CT, this book bespeaks a high seriousness of purpose and lightness of touch that must count heavily on the positive side of the intellectual ledger of Yale. It is a brilliant book—learned, seductively written, deep. Anyone who has seen The Princess Bride knows what folly it is to embark upon a land war in Asia, and yet a genius as remarkable as Napoleon did just that. Why? Possibly, Gaddis suggests, because common sense is “like oxygen: the higher you go, the thinner it gets.” How ironical is that? Traipsing lightly over huge swathes of history from Herodotus and Thucydides through Machiavelli, Tolstoy, Clausewitz, Lincoln, FDR, and Isaiah Berlin, Gaddis has provided an engaging beach book for those who forswear beaches: serious yet unstoppably readable. Reflecting on the literary mess that is Clausewitz’s On War—unfinished at his death from cholera at fifty-one in 1831—Gaddis suggests that what Sir Michael Howard called Clausewitz’s “infuriating incoherence” was not so much a collection of “nuggets” as “an immense dripping net of entangled octopi.” Anyone who has peeked into Clausewitz’s magnum opus will know exactly what Gaddis means. —RK
T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (new fine letterpress edition from The Thornwillow Press): Many readers of The New Criterion know that the magazine is named after T. S. Eliot’s magazine The Criterion, which was published in London from 1922 to 1939. Although a quarterly for most of its seventeen-year tenure, The Criterion was published monthly for a spell in 1927–1928 and was even called The New Criterion for a year or so when it changed ownership in 1926. The Criterion was probably the most influential magazine of its day, publishing such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, E. M. Forster, W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Hart Crane, Marcel Proust, Paul Valéry, and Jean Cocteau, as well as Eliot himself. Indeed, the very first issue of the magazine carried Eliot’s early masterpiece The Waste Land, first published in book form by Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, bound in paste paper wrappers on her kitchen table. I learned that detail from Luke Pontifell of The Thornwillow Press, which is in the process of preparing a fine letterpress edition—several editions, in fact, hardcover, leather, soft cover, etc.—of The Waste Land, together with a facsimile of a page of Eliot’smanuscript, and an introduction by the Eliot scholar Sravani Sen-Das. We at The New Criterion are very excited to see this handsome addition to Eliotiana and thought our readers would like to know about it as well. Subscriptions are being accepted through May 3 for this limited edition, which is scheduled to be in the post to subscribers by October 2018. —RK
“John Bradford: Hamilton, History, Lincoln and Paint,” at Anna Zorina Gallery (through May 5): It may be natural to see “Hamilton, History, Lincoln and Paint,” John Bradford’s exhibition now at Anna Zorina Gallery, in light of other recent efforts to update the American past in the idioms of the cultural present. In Bradford’s case, this means processing such scenes as Hamilton Chasing Benedict Arnold (2017) and Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation (2017) through the modes of expressionistic painting. This kind of effort rises or falls on the convictions of technique. Bradford plays it straight. Paint gets built up, smoothed over, roughed up, and scraped away. Far from anachronistic nostalgia or postmodern gloss, the paintings have something to say: that history can still be felt. Look for a full review in my forthcoming Gallery Chronicle of May 2018. —JP
Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at the Metropolitan Opera: We’re in the home stretch of New York’s music season: the Metropolitan Opera’s last season premiere until the fall comes this week, with a revival of the Bartlett Sher production of Roméo et Juliette that debuted on New Year’s Eve 2016. Gounod’s sumptuous treatment of Shakespeare’s great tragedy features extraordinary arias for soprano and tenor, as well as his finest duet. Charles Castronovo and Ailyn Pérez lead the cast, with Karine Deshayes as Stéphano, Joshua Hopkins as Mercutio, and Kwangchul Youn as Friar Laurence. Plácido Domingo conducts. —ECS
“Fortress New York,” with Steven Eide (April 29): Though New York has seen no military action since the Revolutionary War, its streets contain a number of latter-day “fortified structures”—just in case. There’s the famous Park Avenue Armory (1877–79), the onetime home of the so-called Silk Stocking Regiment; the Squadron A Armory (1894–95), Carnegie Hill’s own castle, now Hunter College High School; Washington Heights’s Fort Washington Avenue Armory (1911), now the site of track and field meets; the Arsenal in Central Park (1848), home to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation; and the West Side’s First Battery Armory (1901–03), now used as television studios, to name just a few. For another perspective on fortified New York, this Sunday, Stephen Eide, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a New Criterion contributor, will lead a tour of “Fortress New York,” examining “how lower Manhattan’s development was influenced by the need to fortify New York during its early centuries.” —BR
From the archive:“Shakespeare & company” by Paul Dean (November 1994). A review of The Western Canon by Harold Bloom.
From the current issue:“An American Chekhov” by Richard Tillinghast. A review of Peter Taylor: Complete Stories 1938–1959 (The Library of America).